Disillusioned Europe: No leaders are spared

Posted in Europe | 06-Jul-04 | Author: Richard Bernstein| Source: The New York Times

French President Jacques Chirac (R) and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder (L)
Public anger hits both left and right

BERLIN Germany's Social Democratic Party, which has headed its governing coalition for six years, has always been the party of this country's working class. That is why when the leader of the country's biggest trade union called the government a failure the other day, it seemed as if something was fundamentally out of kilter in German politics.

Indeed things seem to get worse and worse for the Social Democrats and for Germany's beleaguered Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. He is widely regarded as one of Europe's canniest politicians, but he is not only setting record lows in German public opinion polls but also seems in danger now of losing a core constituency, the labor unions.

His one consolation, however, is that he has good company in Europe. Whatever their ideology or position on the spectrum, the governing parties of many countries, certainly the biggest ones, are experiencing troubles similar to Schröder's. In France and Italy, governed by conservative parties, and in Britain and here in Germany, governed from the traditional left, governments have been soundly defeated in recent local or European elections, as their rankings in the polls have continued to decline.

The fact that both leftist and rightist governing parties are in such trouble suggests that something deep is at work in Europe, a general distrust of traditional parties that transcends ideology and bespeaks a pessimism about the ability of the standard politics of either the left or the right to work in the future.

"There's a tremendous amount of disillusionment with politics altogether," said Timothy Garton Ash, the Oxford University historian and commentator. "People feel that the mainstream parties don't represent them, and this is strong right across Europe, old and new, and that's why you get these extraordinary protest votes, which was dramatic in Britain."

"We live in a slightly paradoxical time," he continued, "when people are disillusioned with politics but they also don't think that politics matter that much anyway. They feel they're going to live comfortably anyway, so they can afford a protest vote."

The situation, not surprisingly, is different in each of the biggest European countries. In Spain, the Socialist Party has just taken power, after voters turned out the former government after it appeared to have withheld information about the source of a terror attack there. In Britain, Prime Minister Tony Blair's political troubles have a great deal to do with his support for the war in Iraq. In other words, while in Germany and France, the ruling parties are getting no reward for their opposition to the Iraqi war, in Britain Blair has clearly been punished because of his firm support of it, with the failure of the occupying forces to find weapons of mass destruction hurting his standing perhaps more than any other issue.

The irritation at Blair is well summed up by his widespread portrayal as George Bush's poodle, a faithful lapdog who is viewed as having deceived the public to justify Britain's participation. "The feeling was that Iraq had gone wrong," David Blunkett, Britain's interior minister, said recently, after the Labour Party got a scant 26 percent of the vote in local elections, compared with the Conservatives' 38 percent. Two days later, Blair's party received less than 23 percent of the vote in the European parliamentary elections.

Those elections were a stunning reprimand, too, for leaders of the other big European countries. In Italy, the party of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi got just 21 percent of the vote after he loudly predicted that it would get 25 percent. Schröder's Social Democrats received 23 percent, the party's worst national showing in 50 years, and the conservative party of President Jacques Chirac of France got a mere 16.6 percent of the votes, compared with 29 percent for the Socialists.

Three months earlier, moreover, Chirac's party was drubbed in local French elections, losing control of all but one of the 12 regional governments it controlled before the election. This does not mean that any of these four leaders are in imminent danger of losing office. Indeed, France, Italy and Germany do not have elections for at least two years.

The Labour Party, though suffering in the British polls, is still seen as likely to win the next general election, possibly next year, in part because of disarray in the ranks of the conservative opposition. Moreover, the leaders in question are tough political tacticians who have battled back from difficulties in the past. B

ut the election results, and the persistent low standings of major European leaders in the polls, reflects an anti-incumbent mood in Europe that, analysts in the various countries say, reflects two elements in the picture. One is a widespread sense on the part of the public that things are going badly even as governments are asking for sacrifices from ordinary people. The other is the failure of the governing parties to enunciate a vision - to find a "Churchillian language," Ash said, worthy of the moment - that can overcome the public's pessimism.

"The main problem for Schröder is that there are no results," Klaus Hillenbrand, the editor of tageszeitung, a small, often satirical daily in Germany, said. "People have to work longer hours and they get less social security, and all this was done because governments said we need more jobs, but there are no more jobs." Or, as Frank Bsirske, the head of the 2. 6 million member labor union known as ver.di and the figure who criticized Schröder a few days ago, put it in an interview with the German paper Welt am Sonntag: "Measured against his claim that he would create jobs, reduce joblessness and pep up the economy, Gerhard Schröder has been a failure."

There are paradoxes in this, among them that, alone among the four leaders, Blair's economic record is probably the best - but he was undermined by Iraq. All the others, Schröder, Chirac and Berlusconi are staking their governments on economic reform programs aimed at making their countries more competitive, but none have shown strong results.

All parties, in other words, are struggling to deal with a new era in Europe, where social protections have become too expensive and a globalized economy, with jobs being outsourced to Poland, Slovakia, and, especially, China, has made vigorous economic growth almost a memory. "In theory, and according to polls, people are in favor of reforms," Peter Lösche, a professor of political science at Göttingen University, said. "In reality, however, if they feel hurt by the reforms, they are opposed to the current government in power. It's as simple as that."

In Italy, where Berlusconi has long promised lower taxes, a streamlining of the bureaucracy, and more competition in protected areas of economic life, many people, including many who previously supported him, have defected, saying they are disillusioned that, contrary to his promises, the reforms have not been carried out.

"There is a specific problem with the leadership of Mr. Berlusconi," Paolo Gentiloni, a member of the center-left opposition, said in an interview just before the European elections. "For many years, he was considered a sort of magician, who could take a very difficult situation and change it for the good. He seems to be no more capable of this. His communication tricks are not working."

All of the leaders in political difficulty are in partnership with other parties to form governing coalitions, and that has meant that ideological differences are often more intense inside the ruling group than between it and the formal opposition. In Germany, for example, Schröder's party, as Bsirske's criticism shows, is deeply divided internally, with much of the traditional labor union constituency of the party demanding that the government deal with the country's economic stagnation by increased spending and by higher taxes on the rich.

"He has an old party that clings to old values that they want to reestablish," Wolfgang Nowak, a former adviser to Schröder who is now an official at Deutsche Bank, said. "Schröder can't give a design for the future, because if he does, the party will break into pieces. It is no longer a motor for change."

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